Ancient Bones Suggest Neanderthals Practiced Cannibalism 40,000 Years Ago

Neanderthals buried their dead, but they may have turned them into their meals, too.

The largest trove of ancient bones unearthed in Belgium offers signs of "intentional butchering" which suggest our prehistoric ancestors may have practiced cannibalism, a new study revealed. The findings present the first ever evidence that ancient humans located north of the Alps consumed their own kind.


Researchers at the University of Tübingen excavated 99 bones and bone fragments from the Goyet Caves near Namur. They collected and analyzed DNA samples from the remains, adding to the current amount of late Neanderthal genetic data.

The DNA analysis revealed that late Neanderthals possessed limited genetic diversity and were highly interrelated as they neared extinction 30,000 years ago. These findings corroborate with previous DNA research.

Signs Of Butchering

But the highlights of the study were the markings researchers found on the Neanderthal bones.

Professor Hervé Bocherens, one of the researchers of the report, says notches, cuts and marks on the bones indicate the extensive butchering process. Some of the bones exhibited signs of slicing, skinning and marrow extraction.

"These indications allow us to assume that Neanderthals practiced cannibalism," says Bocherens.

How could scientists be certain that these were signs of cannibalism? Bocherens says some of the remains of reindeer and horses discovered in Goyet were also processed in the same way.

Still, Bocherens added that it was impossible to know whether the remains of Neanderthals were butchered for some kind of ritual or whether the practice was carried out for food.

Fashioned Into Tools

In addition, Bocherens and his colleagues found that bones of deceased relatives were not only butchered, they were also turned into tools.

Four human bones from Goyet -- three shinbones and one thighbone -- were used to shape stone tools. On the other hand, animal bones were often used in knapping.

Bocherens says the fact that Neanderthal bones were used for this very purpose was something they had seen at very few sites and nowhere as frequently as in Goyet.

The Only Group?

Furthermore, researchers say that no other groups of European Neanderthals have showed signs of cannibalism.

Some of the excavated communities revealed signs of burials, while other digs yielded sophisticated arsenals of stone tools.

Bocherens says the big differences in the behavior of these ancient communities and the close genetic tie between late European Neanderthals raise more questions about the social exchange and lives between multiple groups.

Details of the study are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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